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Firm fined over lead poisoning

23 October 2014

A Darwen-based scrap metal firm has been fined for health and safety failings after workers suffered from lead poisoning.

One 48 year old man from Darwen, who has asked not to be named, was admitted to hospital after blood tests revealed he had seven times the normal amount of lead in his body, putting him at risk of nerve, brain and kidney damage, and infertility.

Frank Barnes (Darwen) was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an investigation found employees had been regularly exposed to lead fumes and dust for a number of months.

Preston Crown Court heard on 20th October 2014, that the firm had been contracted to dismantle metal structures and machinery by a lead battery manufacturer in 2009. This involved work at the battery factory in Over Hulton as well as at Frank Barnes’ own site at Albert and Hope Mills on Cross Street in Darwen.

The owners of the battery firm provided an induction on working with lead, and regularly monitored each employee for exposure.

On 24 November 2009, the employee was found to have high levels of lead in his blood and was suspended from working with lead at the battery factory, as is required by law.

Frank Barnes was also told the employee should not work with lead materials at the Cross Street site, but this advice was ignored. The warning was repeated in January 2010 when another blood test revealed the lead levels in his blood were still high but, again, this was ignored.

HSE was alerted in early February by the GP of another employee whose blood also had high levels of lead. An HSE medical inspector made it clear to the firm that any workers with high blood readings should be taken off that type of work until their levels had reduced.

Despite this, again no action was taken and employees continued to be exposed to lead fumes and dust, leading to the employee being admitted to hospital later that month.

When HSE visited the site in March 2010 they found two other workers, who should have been suspended from lead work, had been allowed to continue working with lead-containing materials and had not been given suitable protective equipment.

Frank Barnes (Darwen) was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay £29,639.65 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to a breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector, Michael Mullen, said: "This is one of the worst cases I have dealt with as an inspector. Frank Barnes (Darwen) consistently failed to respond to clear advice concerning employees with high levels of lead in their blood and these employees continued to be exposed to lead fumes.

"Workers were not warned about the risks they faced, nor given suitable protective masks or clothing. The scrap metal company had a duty to adequately assess and manage the risk of exposure of its employees to lead. However there was no assessment and no effective controls in place in relation to the work.

"This case should act as a clear warning to others who fail to heed health and safety laws that they could find themselves in court.”

Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, tiredness, nausea and stomach pains but prolonged exposure can lead to more serious conditions, including brain damage.